Esports’ Road to the 2018 Olympics

Esports returns to its South Korean roots in the lead up to PyeongChang 2018.

Growing up in Kielce, Poland, Michal Blicharz had two passions: Judo and online gaming. However, he never dreamed that his love of competitive sports and competitive gaming would fuse to make history.

When Blicharz wasn’t refereeing fights, he hung out at internet cafes, playing Unreal Tournament with his friends. After defeating all comers in his town, he became a journeyman Unreal fighter. In early 2000, he traveled across Poland with an optical mouse and a pair of headphones, entering tournaments at cafes, filled with rows of Windows* 98 PCs.

“My friends and I did this for the sense of adventure. We were trying to find someone who would challenges us,” said Blicharz.

Since then, professional gaming has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, in large part under Blicharz’s watch. As vice president of ESL Gaming, he helps organize esports tournaments around the globe, including Intel® Extreme Masters, the longest running international esports competition series.

Esports has seemingly reached the big time in the past few years with network television broadcasts and mega-star athletes. Audience engagement for the Intel® Extreme Masters competition in Oakland, California grew nearly 40 percent from last year, attracting 28.6 million online views from fans around the world.

Now that Intel has become a worldwide partner with the Olympic Games, esports will get the chance to hit the biggest stage yet in a demonstration leading up to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

At the Intel® Extreme Masters PyeongChang, the world’s best StarCraft II players will compete head-to-head for a chance to win top honors and part of a $150,000 prize pool. The competition will be open to anyone through a global online qualifier, which began in early December. Additionally, a live qualifier between the top two players from China will be held in Beijing on December 19. The winners from both move on to compete in PyeongChang, South Korea.

“We see this as another important step in giving more people around the world a chance to experience the thrill of esports,” said John Bonini, vice president and general manager of esports and gaming for Intel.

Esports are growing at a phenomenal rate. By the end of 2017, esports are expected to draw an audience of 385 million people worldwide and reach nearly $700 million in revenue, according to a report by Newzoo. That’s over 40 percent year-over-year growth. By 2020, Newzoo forecasts revenue from esports will reach $1.48 billion and the audience will grow to 589 million.

The 2017 Intel® Extreme Masters World Championship held in Katowice, Poland, for example, drew 173,000 fans to the stadium event. It set the esports record for the biggest online audience, attracting 46 million unique viewers, according to a report by Business Insider. That’s 60,000 more event attendees and 35 percent more online viewers compared with the 2016 event in Katowice.

“In the last several years, we’ve seen the popularity of esports grow globally,” said Michael Morhaime, CEO of Blizzard Entertainment and creator of StarCraft, during an Intel® Extreme Masters PyeongChang 2018 panel broadcast live on Twitch and Twitter.

For Morhaime, seeing esports make its debut leading up to PyeongChang 2018 is a welcome homecoming — after all, South Korea is the motherland of esports.

Birth of Professional Gaming

“Blizzard has been involved with esports for nearly 20 years now,” Morhaime said.

“For us, it really started with StarCraft in Korea back in the late 1990s. Korea really led the way in embracing StarCraft as a competitive game and bringing it into the mainstream.”

It’s a remarkable coincidence that Intel® Extreme Masters PyeongChang 2018 will open with a StarCraft II tournament. A fast-fingered strategy game where players take command of alien armies, the original StarCraft jumpstarted South Korea’s gaming craze in 1998. Gaming competitions spread like wildfire in the country, with weekly matches held in parks and malls. Two cable networks even regularly broadcast StarCraft tournaments.

At a time when professional gaming was still unheard of in other parts of the world, the legendary StarCraft player Yun-Yeol “NaDa” Lee trained 10 hours a day, earned $200,000 in one year and was cheered on by mobs of adoring fans.

With professional gaming becoming a legitimate career, “we’ve seen esports evolve from passion to people’s livelihoods,” said StarCraft commentator Geoff Robinson.

The World Takes Note

Outside of the island of South Korea, however, esports was slow to arrive.

“We were put in the corner of trade shows with maybe 10 people in the audience,” said Blicharz, describing Intel® Extreme Master’s first season in 2006.

In 2009, Intel® Extreme Masters forged a path into China at a time when the Chinese government was leading a crusade against the blight of gaming cafes. Since then, China has transformed into one of the largest esports markets, with tournaments like the Intel® Extreme Masters Shanghai welcoming stampedes of cosplayers.

Then in 2013, the Intel® Extreme Masters World Championships in Katowice, Poland played host to a record crowd of 10,000 people. Since then, the frigid city has become an esports mecca, with attendance soaring to 173,000 screaming fans last year, easily eclipsing the audiences at the world’s largest football stadiums.

Intel® Extreme Masters continues to carry the torch to expand esports around the world. At Intel® Extreme Masters Sydney 2017, the first major esports tournament to be hosted on Australian soil, thousands of rowdy Australians turned out to chant, “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi.”

“Esports have become a force of nature that nobody can ignore,” Blicharz said. Recent tallies show the movement has over 385 million fans.

Blicharz said Intel® Extreme Masters PyeongChang 2018 is another milestone. With the demonstration, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has recognized esports could become a sporting competition in a future Olympic Games.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Olympic recognition could be transformative to the sport. The qualifiers ahead of PyeongChang 2018 have the potential to draw new audiences to esports, continuing to expand the fan base and community.

According to the Olympic historian Bill Mallon, most nations outside the U.S. fund sports at the federal level, and the bulk of the money goes to sports recognized by the Olympic program.

In the past, professional tennis was once dominated by Australia and the U.S. However, after the game became an official Olympic sport in 1988, the level of competition increased dramatically. Eastern European tennis aces like Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka entered the fold.

The same scenario could happen for esports, which need a financial boost to expand globally. Blicharz said that subpar technology in underdeveloped countries is the biggest hurdle for esports’ expansion. But increased interest due to Intel’s involvement with the IOC could pave the way to remote regions getting better internet connectivity and faster PCs — both prerequisites for esports competitions.

“There are still countries where esports lag behind,” said Blicharz. “I’m hoping that will change with technologies like 5G networks.”

Big changes could be on the horizon for esports.